Matching food & wine: restaurant starters

I seem to be thinking about food and wine matching all the time these days, which led me to try and put together a guide for when eating out. Starters are where a good food and wine match can be most rewarding, due to the lightness of the food, the delicate combinations of ingredients, and the freshness of one’s palate.

One problem that I struck upon almost immediately, however, is just the sheer diversity of food in the UK these days, and the impossibility of tackling all the different permutations, combinations and configurations of ingredients. So instead, I tried to take a more classic view, figuring that a basic breakdown of the most popular ingredients/dishes would help as a handy guide, and present some go-to rules that would hopefully help when presented with a menu.

Salads & Vegetables

When it comes to salads, you only really need to be wary of strong vinegar-based dressing, which can react harshly with most wines. Citrus-based dressings are far more wine-friendly.

For a rocket salad dressed with olive oil and parmesan (or variations thereof), try a dry sauvignon blanc, such as a Côtes de Duras, or a dry chenin blanc like a Vouvray Sec.

With tomato salads (and variations), go for bright and acidic whites, such as an Italian Verdicchio or one of the more characterful Pinot Grigio wines.

A bounty of tomatoes at Borough market, London. Pic:

When it comes to buttered asparagus, go for richer sauvignon blancs (such as this Chilean Organic Sauvignon Blanc or a Côtes de Duras from South France). For asparagus with hollandaise, opt for a sauvignon with a touch more acidity, such as a classic Loire like the Petit Bourgeois or a Saint-Bris.

The creaminess of avocado is well matched by good high-acid whites such as a Loire valley chenin blanc – like this Vouvray Sec – or German riesling. Rieslings also work well if you’re going for a salad of avocado and prawns. Opt for a well balanced Alsace riesling, such as this Riesling Tradition.

The creamy dressing of a caesar salad is well suited to a richer style of chardonnay, such as a Vin de Pays d’Oc, or something weighty-but-balanced from the new world, like a Chenin-Torrontés blend from South Africa. Richer chardonnays, such as a classic Pouilly-Fuissé, also work, and make a great match for garlic / breaded mushrooms as well.

A classic Caesar salad: crunchy, creamy and bittersweet – great with richer chardonnays

A plate of antipasti featuring grilled vegetables, olives and artichokes can prove tricky, and it’s perhaps best to stick to Italian wines. For whites, try a good quality Gavi or a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, but a lighter red would work well too, such as a Morellino di Scansano Bellamarsilia, again from Abruzzo.

Fish, Shellfish & Seafood

Fish and seafood often feature heavily on starter menus, and while it’s impossible to cover all the different varieties and dishes, the following should help as a guide.

For a salad involving cold lobster, perhaps with fresh mayonnaise, you can’t get a much better pairing than a classic Burgundian chardonnay, such as a Premier Cru Chablis or Pouilly-Fuissé.

While there are many whites that make ‘acceptable’ partners for oysters, you get really magic flavour combinations with a well made Picpoul de Pinet. Alternatively, if you want something Burgundian, try a richer, warmer style of chardonnay, such as a good Saint-Véran served ice-cold.

Raw oysters, with their unique brine and iodine flavours, are complemented perfectly with a good Picpoup de Pinet

Scallops are a starter staple these days, and are generally very accommodating when it comes to wine. When seared or grilled, go for a white with some weight, such as a Côtes de Gascogne or an Italian Gavi di Tassarolo. Dressed scallops, or those served ceviche, tend to need a little more bite, so try a richer sauvignon blanc such as a Saint-Bris or a good quality example from Chile, such as De Martino’s Organic Sauvignon Blanc. Scallops served in a more traditional creamy sauce favour rich, slightly oaky whites, such as a good Entre-Deux-Mers Bordeaux or a buttery white Burgundy like this Rully.

Smoked salmon can be notoriously tricky to match with wine. While champagne is a popular choice, in reality, only the richest styles will stand up to the richness of the fish. Try our lovely rich grower champagne Grand Reserve Benedicte Jonchere, or else a rounded white Condrieu.

For more rustic fish starters such as Mediterranean brandade or taramasalata, go for an oily-textured white with good aromatics and acids, such as a Costières de Nîmes Blanc, dry Vouvray or a cracking Sicilian Inzolia. Taramasalata also works really well with a characterful Provençal rosé.

For mussels, a classic Muscadet is always a winner, but it can be bettered. As with oysters, try a Picpoul de Pinet or one of Italy’s fish-loving whites, such as a delightful Falanghina Rami. However, top of the list for mussel-matching has to be a Spanish Albariño. Perfection in a glass.

Plump, fresh mussels, washed down with a glass of Spanish Albariño


With so many types of cured meats, pâtés, salamis and terrines available, matching charcuterie starters can be a little daunting. In reality, however, it needn’t be difficult, as long as you follow your nose and understand a little about classic regional pairings.

For most pork charcuterie, you can try to match the meat’s region to the wine’s, (e.g. Bayonne ham with a Gascogne red like Madiran, or Spanish jamón Ibérico with a Rioja Crianza). Alternatively, choose young reds with good acids, which match well with most charcuterie. A fruit-forward Loire Chinon will work well, as will a young Bordeaux and a richer Beaujolais cru, such as a Régnié.

When it comes to Italy’s famous Parma ham, mortadella or salame Milanese, again choose a lighter red, but something Italian, juicy and vivacious, such as a fresh-tasting Morellino di Scansano or a Dolcetto d’Alba.

Italian salame, perfect with a lighter Italian red

With black pudding or boudin noir, go for something that can handle fatty meat and spice. A firm Beaujolais – either a good village wine or a fragrant cru such as a Chiroubles works well, as will a young unoaked Rioja/Tempranillo.

Carpaccio – thin slices of raw beef dressed with oil, Parmesan and rocket – is a dish that requires a little delicacy. Whites work particularly well: try a rich unoaked chardonnay, such as a good Vin de Pays d’Oc or a regional Italian white, such as a good Verdicchio. If a red is preferred, you’ll find a young chianti, such as Cantine Vittorio Innocenti’s, or other light red, an excellent match, even lightly chilled.

Lastly, we turn our attention to foie gras, that unmistakable and often controversial goose liver delicacy. While there are many ways to serve it, simple is best, and when so, there is no finer match than a classic Sauternes. Truly a match made in heaven.

Cheese & Eggs

While this may seem a fairly arbitrary grouping, in truth, similar wines pair well with many egg-based and cheese-based starters.

The wine to drink with deep-fried cheese will be determined by the cheese itself (although it’s most often Brie or Camembert), but don’t underestimate the sweet/tangy relish usually served with it. As such, choose a fruity red with bright acids. A good Beaujolais-Villages would be perfect, as would a richer Loire red, such as a fruity Chinon.

Omelettes – typically made in the French style, with herbs, cheese and/or tomato – can work with richer chardonnay or sémillon whites, but for the ultimate pairing, try a lighter, fresher Bourgogne Rouge or an ever dependable Beaujolais cru, such as a Régnié, lightly chilled.

A classic French omelette, light as soufflé and crying out for a good glass of Beaujolais

On the other hand, Spanish tortillas and Italian fritattas have different requirements, as decreed by their more varied ingredients and flavours. With tortillas, especially where chorizo has been used, go for a modern, unoaked Spanish red, such as a straight Rioja Tempranillo or the Iniza Tinto from Bodega el Cotijo de la Vieja. Similarly, fritatta will be well served by a youthful Italian red, such as a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Classica.

While goat’s cheese comes in myriad different styles, one wine always seems to pair beautifully with it: sauvignon blanc. Whether raw or baked, in general, if there are stronger ingredients alongside the cheese, go for a richer style such as a Chilean expression or even a white Bordeaux, where the sauvignon is blended with the rounder sémillon grape. However, where the cheese is the star of the plate, and indeed, is one of the excellent matured British or French types, nothing beats a classic Loire sauvignon, such as a Sancerre or a Touraine.


Cooking for wine #1: Loire cab franc

Following on from my previous post about matching rioja with Roman pot lamb (here), and inspired by a recent food matching faux-pas, I’ve been thinking about what dish would best complement a classic Loire cabernet franc.

A good cabernet franc, such a Domaine des Roches Neuves’ 2010 Saumur-Champignyis a smoky, savoury, sumptuous delight. Balancing bright berry fruit and floral nuances with a green pepper sapidity, a well-made cabernet franc makes a very food friendly wine. From experience though, I can tell you that it doesn’t go at all with roasted pork and apple sauce, which not only conflicts over the acidity of apples, but also jar withs the fatty sweetness of the meat. What was I thinking? Oh well, we live and learn.

My ideal cab franc match would need to be meaty, but with a good capsicum/green pepper element to harmonise with the wine’s savouriness. A fiery chilli-con-carne came to mind, but then the chilli/tannin spectre raised its head, and a decent cab franc should have fairly firm tannins, so I shelved that idea and instead opted for a classic Hungarian pörkölt, a slow-cooked, meaty, paprika-rich stew scented with caraway and pepper.

At least that’s my version of a pörkölt, I don’t want to get into a fight with any Hungarian purists out there. Pörkölt, like borscht, seems to be one of those European dishes that doesn’t have a definitive recipe, but which people will get quite irate about (usually because your version isn’t the same as the version their mum makes). Now, I might not be a native, but I have been to Hungary plenty of times, had/made many a pörkölt and read a few Gundel books, so I’ve got a fair idea about my Hungarian food.

So here’s my recipe for lamb pörkölt:

Dry-fry a tblsp of caraway seeds until fragrant, set aside, then fry off a couple of medium-sliced onions until soft and yellow. Add quarter of a lamb shoulder, cut into decent sized chunks. Brown the meat, turn off the heat and stir in two good tablespoons of paprika (ideally Hungarian and ideally really good quality – like my mother-in-law makes). Back on the heat, season with salt, pepper and the ground caraway seeds, then stir in enough water to make a consistency like blood. Cover and cook very gently for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing’s sticking and the consistency is still good. You don’t want it too dry, or too wet.

Once the lamb is starting to ‘collapse’, add two/three sliced white (ideally) or green peppers and one large chopped fresh tomato. Leave the lid off and cook for another 30 mins until everything’s cooked, keeping an eye on the consistency. Check seasoning, add some chopped marjoram/oregano/parsley and serve with boiled or baked potatoes and whatever greens you have. Get happy.

Hungarian lamb pörkölt, baked potato, steamed beetroot greens/purple sprouting broccoli. Deep, colourful, lovely.

My hunch proved a pretty good one. The pörkölt – all sweet fatty lamb, savoury green pepperiness and fragrant, earthy, every-so-slightly-spicy depths – married really well with the bright berry fruit flavours, smoky floral nuances and grippy ‘green’ acidity of the Saumur-Champigny. A good wine match is when both the food and the wine are elevated and, if you like, ‘completed’ by the other, and I think we had that going on here. A very satisfying meal.

So, if you don’t know the Cabernet Franc grape, or if you’ve had a bad experience with it (roast pork, perhaps?) I’d urge you to give it another shot and, ideally, get it going with some good home-cooked Hungarian food. Trust me, you’ll be in hog’s heaven.

With so many wines leaning towards a sweet, easy-going, food-not-required style these days, it’s lovely to experiment with those that still come into their own with food. The Loire valley is the key place to look for the best cab francs, but keep an eye on ABVs, you find some upwards of 14% these days which are fruit bombs. At around 12.5%, you tend to get a far more ‘classic’ character.

Freshly picked Cabernet Franc grapes

PS. Pörkölt can also be made with beef, veal and pork. In fact, traditionally it would be mutton, not lamb, but either way, it’s good. Enjoy!